Yes, “Boardwalk Empire” takes a long time to coalesce, but we’ll admit, when its early chess piece moves begin to fall into place, and you can see the forest for the trees on the board, boy does it get good. In tonight’s absorbing episode, Nucky Thompson’s (Steve Buscemi) latest booze shipment from Florida arrives with some unexpected cargo. It’s Sally Wheet (Patricia Arquette), Nucky’s lady in the Sunshine State who is overseeing the business. She’s the mercurial firecracker who got into a fistfight with Nuck and then made love to him in the season’s sixth episode, “North Star.” Arriving unannounced, she throws Nucky for a bit of a loop. And what’s more, she’s hard to pin down and seems to be in no mood to pick up where Nucky and her last left off. In fact, Atlantic City underling gangster Mickey Doyle (Paul Sparks) appears to be taking a shine to her, and she doesn’t seem to mind the attention. Nucky doesn’t really know where he stands and he doesn’t like it. Several threads simmering all season come to a boil tonight.
Meanwhile, Nucky still has William Thompson (Ben Rosenfield) to deal with. Eli’s eldest son has been staying with Nucky because last episode a drunken Eli (Shea Whigham), his father, practically choked him out for talking back and announcing he had quit college in Philadelphia. Will wants to get into the illegal bootlegging business badly, but Nucky’s trying to keep Will on the straight and narrow so Eli won’t snap.
Also cooking is an election, so the mayor stops by Nucky’s office to chat. There’s ruckus going on in the negro part of town: Chalky White’s (Michael K. Williams) territory. So much so that Nucky has to go down to the Onyx club, pay a visit to Chalky, and ask if his house is in order. Offended, White basically tells Nucky off, saying that if there’s a problem, he’ll be the first to know, but underneath it sows the seeds for White to dust off the cobwebs that have been growing in his head all season.
Meanwhile, FBI Agent Warren Knox—real name James M. Tolliver (Brian Geraghty)—knows his boss J. Edgar Hoover (Eric Ladin) wants to turn up the heat on a nationwide conspiracy involving gangster bootleggers now that the Bureau Chief has announced the plan to his superiors. Knox brings down the heat on his men to turn up some leads. After chastising what appears to be their lazy work, one fellow has a bit of intel: he’s learned about one Clayton Davies (Owen Campbell). The Temple University student who took the fall for William after the unintentional death of Henry (Josh Caras)—a rival that Clayton and William poisoned as a gag that went bad. Smelling an opportunity, Knox seizes it, and in the next moment he’s got Eli boxed in. He quickly lays it down and basically blackmails Eli with options, none of them good: sing against his brother Nucky and all will be well, otherwise, his eldest son William is going to switch places with Clayton in jail for murder.
Sally does end up in bed with Nucky eventually, but not before the weasel Mickey Doyle takes one on the forehead for being a pest. Sally’s motivations for being in Atlantic City are still unclear, but she is both reckless and adventurous. She takes a shine to William and might have inadvertently put some ideas in his head about being his own man (and maybe joining the family business) and so the young man plucks up the nerve to ask for work, to which Nucky agrees. It’s not an illegal gig, but one in the mayor’s office to be a type of eyes and ears. What will Eli think of all this? Normally, he’d be furious, maybe even going to blows with Nucky, but considering the contemporaneous circumstances, he’s probably fine to let it go.
And while these scenes of Eli being forced into a deal with the devil are intense—Eli, a family man, really has no choice—the sparks really fly on the Northside of town in Chalk White territory. Played for a sucker by Dr. Narcisse (Jeffrey Wright), the erudite Harlem Negro is disdainful of the deals Chalky makes with Nucky and the Atlantic City white folk. White’s been acting the fool lately. Blind to everything around him, he’s fallen head over heels in love with Onyx club singer Daughter Maitland (Margot Bingham), but this affair is apocryphal and one that Narcisse put Maitland up to. Distracted by her various comely charms, White’s also been ignorant of the fact that his right hand man Dunn Purnsley (Erik LaRay Harvey), has switched teams and waiting in the wings is a full blown coup waiting to fully and violently take over.
But something finally awakes in White this episode (Nucky’s visit didn’t hurt), and much of this is due to the suspicious murder of Father Deacon, the negro priest and political ally of White who was suddenly killed last episode (which is the source of all the unrest in this part of town). Sensing something is off at the father’s funeral and sensing a queer sense of satisfaction from Narcisse, White tunes into something amiss, and though suspicious of Purnsley himself, he hasn’t quite discovered the full extent of the betrayal. White raids the house he agreed to let Narcisse take up shop in, but once inside he discovers a heroin flop house and quickly figures out Narcissse’s plan (with Purnsley trying to cover as much as possible, including killing a man in the process). Throwing down the gauntlet, White drives over to Narcisse’s part of town and sets his precious heroin on fire in front of a crowd. Furious, Narcisse uses Daughter Maitland as a flytrap to catch Nucky that very evening.
After Maitland and White make love, Chalky gets emotional. He asks Maitland to sing the hymn that played at the funeral earlier in the day, “The Old Ship of Zion.” She sings sadly and sweetly and it burns like a foreboding funeral dirge. Right on cue, Purnsley stops by for a surprise visit out of nowhere. How would he know where White is (the affair between the Onyx club owner and the singer has been secret thus far)? Purnsley plays it off like it’s been obvious all along, but White’s been too high alert to fall for this lie. A gripping melee ensues, both men fighting for their lives with White even taking a piece of glass through his lieutenant’s mouth. But when the tables are turned, it appears that the larger man will do away with the boss he’s betrayed, gigantic hands choking the very life out of him. At the last minute, Daughter Maitland has a change of heart and punctures through Purnsley’s lung with a cleaver. It’s as intense a scene as anything we’ve seen this year and there will be furious vengeance to pay back next episode as the brewing war between White and Narcisse seems to have finally erupted.
Finally, Eli comes home from his backed-into-a-corner dinner with the FBI. He arrives to find Nucky, his son William, and his entire family celebrating William’s return home. It’s a tense scene; the family waits with bated breath to see how the father will react, and we the audience do the same knowing what we do about Eli’s moral dilemma. And it appears, for the second time in two seasons, Eli Thompson will once again betray his older brother Nucky. Last time, there was a year of jail time as penance, leaving him to start off at the bottom once he got out. This time, however, he may not get such leniency.